Rebuilding Eden in the Arizona Desert
A conversation with director Matt Wolf about his new documentary, "Spaceship Earth," on the strange utopian experiment that was Biosphere 2.
Biospherians (left to right): Bernd Zabel, Linda Leigh, Taber MacMullen, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silverstone, Roy Walford, and Jane Poynterposing inside Biosphere 2 in a 1990. Courtesy of NEON
Director Matt Wolf first came into contact with the strange universe of Biosphere 2 from a photograph: a massive geodesic dome, glittering in the Arizona desert, with a group of people standing in front of it wearing costumes that looked like they belonged in a DEVO music video. "I genuinely thought that these were stills from a science fiction film, but of course quickly realized that this structure is real and that these people in fact had lived inside of it and are around. I was interested in this idea of a group of people literally re-imagining a world," Wolf tells me over the phone. Wolf, who has worked on documentary features about the musician Arthur Russell (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell), and the very eccentric and oracular Marion Stokes (Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project), among others, was captivated by this strange photo and its forgotten history so much that it compelled him to make his latest feature film, Spaceship Earth.
Biosphere 2, he later learned, was an incredibly ambitious experiment that involved sealing eight human beings inside a giant terrarium with the hope of proving it was possible to colonize outer space. Biosphere 2, which cheekily got its name from Earth (a.k.a. Biosphere 1), was deemed as a complete failure at the time. The event—and experiment—was quickly dismissed as a heavily sensationalized, borderline "scam" helmed by would-be cult leader John Allen, funded by Ed Bass, the "kooky" one in a family of oil scions. Wolf quickly realized there was far more to the story than meets the eye.
Spaceship Earth goes back to the early origins of the people who designed Biosphere 2, otherwise known as the Synergists, free thinkers born out of the San Francisco counterculture movement, who were first known for writing experimental theater. The resulting movie is one that is cerebral, critical, and wry. It also features a pretty insane banker who may or may not be one of the greatest villains of the 21st century in America. Composed almost entirely of archival footage and confessionals by the people who were actually involved in the project, the film approaches Biosphere 2 not with a sensationalist angle, but instead with one of deep care and curiosity. I talked to Wolf about the Synergists, their dreams for a better environment, how all of this relates to being trapped inside all day during quarantine, and more.
One of the things that is super interesting to me about Biosphere 2 that I learned from watching a movie is that this group of people faced a lot of really intense public scrutiny. It was deemed a failure, the people inside of Biosphere 2 were oxygen starved. You approach the film with a completely different angle, and I wanted to ask you about how you arrived at that.
I chose to look at the film in a much wider way by examining the prehistory of the project and looking at the ideas that went into Biosphere 2 and the unconventional line of thinking that gave rise to such a monumental project. I went in with the perspective that there was something meaningful about Biosphere 2; yet, I was interested in why the larger culture had deemed it a failure and then mostly rebuked the life's work of this idiosyncratic group of people. I was drawn to them because they were artists and adventurers—they worked outside of established institutions and came to the project with a kind of unusual idealism and ambition that is rare. What they did really defied categories of what 1960s hippies and counterculture look like. And the model in which they were working was inspiring, but it was also limited. In some senses I saw it as a story of human achievement, but also the limitations of that.
How were the Synergists pushing up against what we think of when we think of sixties youth culture?
The Synergists were really workaholics and they define themselves as capitalists; whereas, we normally think of counterculture as being anti-capitalists and rejecting modern society. These guys were interested in technology and science. And they pursued these business enterprises around the world that they hoped would be ecologically sustainable, but also economically sustainable. You could say that this is the neoliberal model that was percolating in the late seventies and early eighties in which counter-cultural types aspire to make their idealism profitable. And I think they ran into trouble when they scaled up their vision in Biosphere 2 because they came under the scrutiny of the media as they entered the world stage. At the end of the day, their project did prove to be economically unsustainable. They operated in a model of patronage in which a billionaire took a longterm risk to fund what they hoped would be a 100 year experiment. It didn't pan out because the need for short term profit maximization came into focus and became the reality that shortchanged their vision.
It seems like the Synergists had a lot of parallels to tech utopists and the development of Silicon Valley culture. What do you think about that?
I think that part of the issue is that what John Allen was doing, being a charismatic figure who forged a collaborative relationship with a financier, who was operating outside of academic or government institutions, and was approaching a genre or discipline defying project that aims to do something futuristic that could be profitable. All the things I'm saying are the characteristics of dot com CEOs and innovators. The terminology that people use is disruptor. Steve Jobs coined the idea of “think different,” as a marketing slogan. Mark Zuckerberg says his ethos is to “break things.” I mean Elon Musk is trying to colonize Mars through private venture. What [John Allen] was doing is not so outside of the realm of what we see now and in dot com innovators, but of course, that model didn't exist. In fact, this whole project was before the internet. So I think that is partially what some of the cynicism was about it.
A part of this film that really comes to mind where the ecologist Tony Burgess draws parallels to Synergists and cults. He explains this idea that so much of the history of invention is helmed by really zealous people who are really excited about an idea.
I think it's true that innovative projects often revolve around a charismatic personality who compels people to dive full in, to commit their lives, their time and energy towards this common vision and goal that's defined by them. I think Biosphere 2 is no exception. There is a cult of personality that was central to the project and a comprehensive lifestyle that characterize the activity of this group. From the outside certainly appeared to be eccentric or to some scary because of their kind of lack of exposure to counter cultural groups like this.
There's a very surprising character in the movie that comes in at the very end of the film, and I was wondering if you could talk to me about that and how his involvement changed the narrative of Biosphere 2.
The way I frame it is that there's a contemporary political scoop in the final act of the film. And that was another reason why I felt this story was brought into the present because there is a takeover of Biosphere 2 by this contemporary political villain. In some sense, it's no different than the takeover of Biosphere 1 in which the political forces and power are dismantling protections of our planet and accelerating climate change that threatens our survival. So I think the ultimate state of Biosphere 2 is an allegory for the forces that threatened our survival on Biosphere 1.
What do you think the Synergists really got right?
I think they really got right a unique model of working in small groups. In fact, that was my big takeaway from this film. It's just like this is a viable model for all of us to actually do things instead of talking about things. To find small groups with varied skills; we can come together around a common goal. The Synergists just weren't just talkers, they were doers. They had an incredible level of ambition to their doings. I think a lot of it proved to be viable because they cohered as a small group, and they stayed together despite the success or failure of their project. To me, that's inspiring, and I think it's a model that is significant for us to think about today. Because as we enter this transformed world, it's on us to make it sustainable. And we will navigate this new world, not collectively as an entire country or world, but through the guise of smaller groups within our communities.
This movie is coming out at like a very evocative time, one might say. I was wondering if you could talk to me about how it feels for you to have your movie come out at a time where what was happening in Biosphere 2 has never felt more relevant.
Well it's interesting because when the movie was finished and premiered at Sundance, I thought it was super relevant to the world today in terms of climate change and a sense of accountability to the larger world that's missing. But of course the parallel to the Biospherians experiencing quarantine are now uncanny. As this was unfolding, it didn't even occur to me until I had a conversation with our distributor, Neon, who said, "We're going to distribute this movie in a different way. It needs to come out now," that I was like, "Yeah. I guess this really does at least provide some perspective about what's going on given the literal and uncanny parallels between the Biospherians' experience and all of us."
I think my takeaway while thinking about it was largely informed by Mark Nelson who talked about the sense of personal transformation that happened for him when he went into a closed system for two years. Because inside they could really see and measure the consequences of their action. They were responsible for creating their own atmosphere to breathe and the food that would sustain them. I think that made it such that they couldn't take anything for granted, not even a breath of fresh air. So when you reenter a larger world, the gigantic closed system that is Biosphere 1—their definition of planet Earth, you have a new perspective about the consequences of your actions. You feel a new sense of accountability. And I think that's been thrown into focus now. We go outside and we see other people and it's not just about us protecting ourselves. I hope that people see that the world is a fragile place and it's kind of on us to be accountable to each other so that our day to day lives can carry on. I feel that in a more visceral sense given my own kind of isolation from the outside world.